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Review: ‘Trails of Cold Steel III’ Delivers a Powerful Continuation to a Beloved Series

‘Trails of Cold Steel III’ is the strongest and hardest-hitting entry of an already beloved franchise.

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Trails of Cold Steel III

Patience is a virtue, and few games embody that sentiment as well as the “Trails” series. Ever since the 2011 Western release of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky for the PSP, developer Nihon Falcom has gradually introduced players to the incredibly intricate and engrossing world of Zemuria. Now on the franchise’s eighth installment, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III continues the trend of deeply personal storylines becoming entangled with greater ploys, flexible turn-based combat, and a world given as much love and attention as a mother would their child. 

A Story of Changing Times

About a year and a half has passed since the events of the second Cold Steel game. Our long-standing protagonist, Rean Schwarzer, finds himself in search of a new purpose and winds up at the newly opened location of his old alma mater — Thors Military Academy Branch Campus — as one of its instructors. Deeply affected by his own time as a student at Thors, he hopes to give back what he’s received and maybe even reclaim something which was lost. Rean is put in charge of a newly formed Class VII and strives to guide his new pupils during turbulent times just as Instructor Sara did for him prior.

Trails of Cold Steel III Class VII

Newcomers looking to jump straight into Trails of Cold Steel III will find a comprehensive primer in the game that covers the events of the previous titles. However, due to the deeply interconnected nature of the games, it is still highly recommended to have actually played the previous Trails entries, at least Cold Steel I & II, before jumping into Trails of Cold Steel III.

True to series form, the story is one of constant upheaval and unease punctuated with poignant moments of tender heart-to-hearts, even if it does tend to rely on “saved-by-the-bell” plot devices one too many times. Fans that have been following the series since its onset will find payoffs and tied up loose ends that hit fast and hard throughout the campaign. 

The narrative displays a new side of Rean as he shows maturity and stern care for his students and demonstrates a clear degree of growth from the experiences he’s been through. It’s difficult to not get choked up at times during moments that highlight Rean and his fellow original Class VII members’ growths.

Altina Orion
Altina is a gem and must be protected

The new Class VII, though, is just as engaging as their predecessors. The straight-forward and gung-ho Juna Crawford and down-to-business Kurt Vander are immediately likable and quickly develop a dynamic relationship with one another. Rean’s enemy-turned-aid Altina, meanwhile, is a particular standout as she learns what it means to truly care for others throughout the course of the game.

Artes and Crafts Lessons

While times may be a-changin’ in Erebonia, the combat in Trails of Cold Steel III remains largely the same as its predecessors, albeit with some interesting additions. At its core, up to four party members take turns maneuvering around a field and executing various character-specific crafts and equipable artes to gain the upper hand in battle. 

Manipulation of turn order to nab randomized turn bonuses is still present and it’s still just as satisfying to line up the right bonus with the right character. Meanwhile, deciding whether to clump your party together to more easily assist each other or split them apart to avoid being targeted all at once by enemy attacks is one of the many considerations to take into account that brings about stimulating combat.

Trails of Cold Steel III Combat
Each action menu being assigned to a single button is a nice quality-of-life update compared to previous games’ radial menus

Link pairs make a return along with all their benefits such as boosting the power of partners’ artes or unbalancing the enemy. Unbalancing an enemy allows for that character’s link partner to follow-up with an attack of their own while also granting Brave Points, or BP. These can be used on Rush and Burst link attacks like previous games but now also serve the purpose of activating one of Trails of Cold Steel III’s new combat systems, Brave Orders.

Brave Orders are powerful buffs that consume BP to affect the whole party and can be used on any character’s turn in addition to their regular actions. They range from simply boosting damage dealt to something as significant as rendering your entire party invulnerable for a number of turns. Issuing the proper Brave Order at the proper times to get out of a tight spot provides a powerful adrenaline rush, especially when paired with the killer guitar riffs of a stellar soundtrack.

Break bars are also a new addition to Trails of Cold Steel III and suffer damage in conjunction with enemies’ regular health. Once depleted, the enemy is “broken”, delaying their turn, lowering their defenses, and guaranteeing every attack on them will unbalance. It’s a neat addition that encourages aggressive play as breaking the enemy can either provide valuable breathing room to recuperate or provide an opportunity to really lay on the hurt. 

Trails of cold Steel III Brave Order
Brave Orders can readily change the tide of battle

The addition of break bars and Brave Orders does rather trivialize any difficulty the game may have for the first half or so of the journey. The difficulty does eventually ramp up the heat and throw some fights your way that demand full understanding of these systems to come out on top, though, and triumphing them is nothing short of exhilarating.

Being a Proper Erebonian Citizen

When you’re not off slaying mystical Cryptids or clashing with the ever enigmatic society of Ouroboros, you’re doing the rounds and checking in on those not on the frontlines. One of the Trails series’s greatest strengths is how it builds its world and the people inhabiting it, and Trails of Cold Steel III is no exception. 

In addition to his responsibilities teaching at the academy, Rean’s duties will take him all around the previously unseen Western side of the Erebonian Empire. New locales such as the old capital Saint-Arkh and the dazzling coastal city Ordis are welcome sights after the first two games essentially used the same locations.

Trails of Cold Steel III Crossbell

Graphics from a technical standpoint can still seem stuck in the PS3 era at times but are made up for with acute attention to detail that make these locations feel lived in. Unique items line the shelves of every shop, each student’s dorm room has memorabilia that makes it distinctly theirs, and street corners are packed with interesting architecture.  It’s a shame that level of detail still hasn’t carried over to field and dungeon designs, however, as they remain rather bland corridors with the occasional pretty vista or two.

That detail does carry over to NPC dialogue, though, and that goes a long way towards fleshing out the believability of the world. Almost every NPC in Trails of Cold Steel III is named and has their own life that can be followed throughout the game. Speaking with them delivers more than the usual town exposition and instead expands upon the worries of the little people and how these nation moving events have affected them. This is a narrative treat that makes speaking with each and every NPC to check in on their lives an intrinsically gratifying endeavor that gives fascinating glimpses into microcosms of life.

Bonding events, meanwhile, can once again be viewed during Rean’s free days on campus. Beyond increasing bond level that translates to extra battle bonuses, bond events are more importantly when the player and Rean can learn more about his students and allies in meaningful ways. These events are specific to the day they happen on, which means some will be inevitably passed up on a first playthrough but that just makes the ones that are seen feel all the more special.

Randolph Orlando

Such attention to world and character building comes at the price of pacing, however, just as it has in every past Trails game. One can go hours without seeing a single battle depending on how much you choose to engage with Trails of Cold Steel III’s world, which can sometimes feel quite lop-sided. Often times this isn’t an issue because of the aforementioned details but it does sometimes drag when you are wanting to see the next story beat or just want to beat up some monsters.

Arise, O Youth!

In an industry that has prominently been pursuing making soft reboots and sequels of long-running franchises as accessible to newcomers as possible, it’s rare to see something like The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III that so boldly builds upon the foundations and lore of every previous game in the series. It’s everything that fans have come to adore about the games with a far-reaching story that connects with many aspects of previous titles, characters and a world that organically grow alongside the player, and an engaging battle system with some shiny new tools. It’s a bit of a shame that the flaws persistent throughout the series such as bland dungeon design and uneven pacing have also stuck around but that hasn’t brought the extreme highs down by all that much.

Nihon Falcom is keenly aware of exactly why people play and love their Trails games and that shows by the distinct refinement demonstrated here. This isn’t a reinvention or a bold evolution but the enhancement of every aspect that makes these games so special. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is the strongest and hardest-hitting title in the series and one of the most satisfying JRPG’s on the market. Fans of the genre owe it to themselves to not let this veritable gem pass them by.

Heralding from the rustic, old town of Los Angeles, California; Matthew now resides in Boston where he diligently researches the cure for cancer. In reality, though, he just wants to play games and watch anime, and likes talking about them way too much. A Nintendo/Sony hybrid fan with a soft-spot for RPG’s, he finds little beats sinking hours into an immersive game world.

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